Sunday, 28 December 2008

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Moshin Hamid

(Penguin, 209pp, £7.99)

This novella has been atop our bestseller lists at the bookshop for some time now, so I thought I'd better give it a try. It was shortlisted, along with several other short novels such as On Chesil Beach and Mister Pip (more on the latter later), for last year's Man Booker, and shares with those two at least the frustrating quality of being better by a long way than the novel that won, Anne Enright's The Gathering, which I found dreary and shapeless.

The book opens with a lively address to a reader who is gradually characterised as an American man in a suit, supposedly engaged in conversation with Changez, a Pakistani national educated at Princeton and eventually spat out by a wealthy American business consultancy firm. The setting is Lahore, and each chapter generally begins with Changez's comments on the changing scene around them as dusk falls, and the food to which he is introducing his new acquaintance; it then continues with his narrative of the past. Hamid has done well with his form-content relationship, and limited the amount of time to be narrated to about a year, limited further to Changez's career, an ongoing romantic saga with a troubled Princeton friend, Erica, and his changing attitudes to Western culture. Indeed, many of the review quotations on the back of my paperback edition comment on how "spare", "taut" and "sharp" the book is: there are no swathes of description or attempts at anything other than what seems to be an earnest relation of his activities. The prose is readable, entertaining and (surprisingly at times) sympathetic: I was taken especially by this passage (at page 179):

If you have ever, sir, been through the breakup of a romantic relationship that involved great love, you will perhaps understand what I experienced. There is in such situations usually a moment of passion during which the unthinkable is said; this is followed by a sense of euphoria at finally being liberated; then comes the inveitable period of doubt, the desperate and doomed backpedaling of regret; and only later, once emotions have receded, is one able to view with equanimity the journey through which one has passed.
This seems beautifully unembellished and accurate, and yet carries at the same time an air of dismissal, perhaps because of the semi-colons and the slight pomposity of the language. Perhaps the speaker is belittling his own emotional journey compared to the ideological overhaul he has experienced simultaneously?

The tone of the book builds beautifully to the end, but it is in fact the end that I found almost unbearably frustrating. I don't often think that books ought to be longer, but in this case I think another 50 pages would have done this one good. The last chapter reveals so much in such a short time, suddenly condensing the passage of a few months, and only in the last page revealing the triumphant twist, that I was unable to reconcile the ominousness of the previous chapters with this ending: I was expecting something subtler and, if I'm honest, more carefully handled. The section after Changez's return to Lahore seemed bunged in, if you like, and tacked on, less precise in its detail and apparently in a rush to reach the end. This is a shame since the earlier scenes, and especially the characters of Wainright, Changez's boss, and Erica, forever in love with a sweetheart who died very young, are vivid and convincing. I found far more satisfaction in the end of Erica's story than that of Changez (and of the whole book), which meant that I came away less happy than I have from far worse books with better endings. Read it, is my conclusion, but take your time getting to the end and enjoy what comes before.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008


Just a quick one this time - and sorry for being so absent. Hopefully things will improve after Christmas - going back to the subject of Twilight. I was told by someone at work that Meyer is approaching her plotlines 'from an abstinence point of view'. That is, the idea of the honourable vampire who won't drink the blood of another human is a manifesto for sexual abstinence.

It is certainly true that Edward and Isabella, despite being close to adulthood, don't have sex or even come close to it (although I don't know about subsequent books); they never discuss it or suggest it, although Edward suggests at one point that his feelings for Isabella are the same as any other man's - by which I presume he means sexual, judging by the context. The fact that he longs for her blood more than any other is shown as a cause of his love for her, not parallel, so the metaphoric link between sex and vampiric violence is arguably present in Meyer's mind as well as more generally in folklore.

Is this really a responsible thing to be suggesting to our teenagers? I sell people this book, and I'm crying a little inside as I do it.


Tuesday, 9 December 2008

You were certainly honest when you said
that you can't dance. Getting in from the pub
with a head like honey, my brain
melting into my smile,

I find you, in the front room, a dark upright eel
against the streetlights outside -
how you would be, I suppose,
if I'd dropped a pill not a pint -
two-tone orange and charcoal grey -

and dancing, like a serene fool
belonging finally in your own noise, to a song
on my iPod - which I can hear, the beat only,
like a muffled music from another world -

and have I leapt into primitive eyes,
before we tried to find God in ourselves,
where a curious flex of protons and power
shows us
what will be and must be, ourselves at our most glorious? -

that is, me at my most drunk.


The above is a poem I found from early September. I changed the lineation and phrasing a bit, and it still needs a good deal of work, but I thought I'd bung it up here anyway. Perhaps if I edit it I'll record the editing process as it evolves.


The Accidental by Ali Smith

(306pp, Penguin, £7.99)

The blurb on the back of this book, which claims that the novel 'explores the nature of truth, the role of fate and the power of storytelling,' does not do The Accidental justice. If I were to write a replacement blurb, I would start with the intensive, meditative portrayal of consciousness, the alienation of the everyday, the defamiliarisation of emotion and the comic polyphony of twenty-first century life.

Quite simply, this is a marvellous book (not surprising that it won the Whitbread Novel Award in 2005 and was shortlisted for both the Man Booker in 2005 and the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2006). It is divided into three sections: beginning, middle and end, and further into five chapters in each section, told from the point of view of each main character. There's Astrid, the 12-year-old girl obsessed with the archiving of film footage and the discovery of new word and phrases; Magnus, her 16-year-old brother struggling with guilt over his partial responsibility for a schoolgirl's suicide as well as his own sexual awakening; Michael Smart, their stepfather, an English lecturer weaving a tangled web of lechery and infidelity in his search for a kind of linguistic supreme; Eve, the children's mother, trying to hold things together; and Amber, the stranger who arrives at their holiday home in Norfolk one day, and immediately entrances the whole family.

The plot of the novel is for me far less significant than its stylistic feel. Smith is funny, clever and has a poetic imagination matched even by few poets. I was entranced by this passage:
She had entered him like he was water. Like he was a dictionary and she was a word he hadn't known was in him. Or she had entered him more simply, like he was a door and she opened him, leaving him standing ajar as she walked straight in.
Smith is as sharply observant as a comedian, finding the ridiculous in life, silly phrases, individual obsessions. Her book oozes with the authenticity of life in 2003 even while she mocks the idea of the authentic through Eve's authorial pursuits, which involve recreating and manipulating the lives of 'Genuine' figures from the past. She is explicit in her narrations of sex, brutally, sometimes, and in some ways these scenes seem to mark the lack of sentimentality that characterises the whole novel. The figure of Amber, who is shocking at first for no other reason than her lack of conventional civility, becomes a kind of antithesis of every artificial rule we as a society have laid down for ourselves, and because of this she is powerfully attractive to the whole Smart family.

This is the kind of book that stays with you for a long time. My one trouble with it was its density: it is a novel to be read slowly, deliberately, like Virginia Woolf or Proust, like any stream-of-consciousness, but it is funnier and livelier, irreverent, rich with allusion and insistently peculiar. I wondered at first if either Astrid, Magnus or both were mentally ill - autistic possibly. They aren't, but I suspect this is what it is to see into someone else's consciousness: destabilising and weird to realise how much of what we think is translated into what is considered 'normal' so that we are not rejected by society. Smith understands this completely, and when I give the borrowed copy of The Accidental back to its rightful owner I'm going to buy my own and scribble all over it - which must be the sign of a brilliant read.


Thursday, 4 December 2008

A quick note ...

So I reread Pride and Prejudice, but I hope you'll forgive me for not writing a review of that. I'm currently on Ali Smith's The Accidental, so I'll cover that one when I finish it.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

(343pp, HarperCollins, £7.99)

Note above the more formal presentation of the review, and the ditching of the out-of-10 mark. Partly I've been inspired by this reflective and clever book, which narrates Nafisi's private 'book club' for her most intelligent, free-thinking students in Tehran. The book is divided into four sections: 'Lolita', 'Gatsby', 'James' and 'Austen' (the latter two sections deal mainly with Washington Square and Daisy Miller, and Pride and Prejudice); each tells of the whirling events of the political turmoil in Iran, including the revolution and the transformation into the Islamic Republic of Iran, as well as the war with Iraq from 1980 (apologies if these facts are wrong, I'm working from memory here), interlaced with their discussions of the works of English and American literature they read. Nafisi shows cleverly how the ideas in even Jane Austen's works relate profoundly to the constantly scrutinised, highly moralistic society by which Nafisi and her students are bound. I particularly liked these paragraphs on Pride and Prejudice:

There is seldom a physical description of a character or scene in Pride and Prejudice and yet we feel that we have seen each of these characters and their intimate worlds; we feel we know them, and sense their surroundings. We can see Elizabeth's reaction to Darcy's denunciation of her beauty, Mrs Bennet chattering at the dinner table or Elizabeth and Darcy walking in and out of the shadows of the Pemberley estate. The amazing this is that all of this is created mainly through tone - different tones of voice, words that become haughty and naughty, soft, harsh, coaxing, insinuating, insensible, vain.
The sense of touch that is missing from Austen's novels is replaced by a sense of tension, an erotic texture of sounds and silences. She manages to create a feeling of longing by setting characters who want each other at odds. Elizabeth and Darcy are placed near each other in several scenes, but in public places where they cannot communicate privately. Austen creates a great deal of frustrated tension by putting them in the same room yet out of reach. The tension is deepened by the fact that while everyone expects Jane and Bingley to be in love, the exact reverse is expected of Elizabeth and Darcy.
Nafisi is clearly very intelligent, but these moments of interpretation are not over the average reader's head - that is, I shouldn't think you need an English degree to understand them. What you do ideally need, though, is a working knowledge of the works she writes about - and in this sense my judgement of the book was nicely balanced, since I have read Lolita and Pride and Prejudice but not The Great Gatsby (I know, shocking) or either James novel. Perhaps not surprisingly, I enjoyed the two middle sections, about Gatsby and James, far less than the other two, and so I would strongly suggest reading the novels before embarking on this book; that way you won't have to contend with unfamiliar political events as well as unfamiliar plotlines embedded in plotlines. Perhaps because I'm also not old enough to remember many of the events she describes, I did get confused, and I also got the names of Nafisi's students muddled because of the unfamiliarity of Iranian names (so many of them begin with M!). I should also warn that it is a slow-ish read: the text is fairly dense, laden with facts. I actually enjoyed her approach to the narration of the political events, during which she describes horrors perpetrated by the Iranian authorities with minimal comment or judgement, which certainly saves us from the repetition of her shock, as this would doubtless become tedious. However, you do have to concentrate on what you are reading, try and remember the various qualities of each character (there are quite a few, some of whom crop up so infrequently that you've all but forgotten about them), and be willing to use your brain (something I can't say for Twilight!). It is fairly clear that Nafisi is not a native English speaker: her prose, though perfectly grammatical and lucid, is sometimes slightly awkward, and she lacks the subtle understanding of natural English rhythms which you don't even notice until you are faced with their absence. Of course this is by no means her fault, but it does make the book slightly more tiring to read. If you have the energy to devote to it, though, you'll find yourself entertained, enlightened and, as I discovered slightly to my surprise, elated by this thoughtful narrative.


I'm aware that the above review wasn't very long; this is mainly because I was prompted by the book to reread Pride and Prejudice. I have read about half of it today, and, having not read it for some years, was reminded of her brilliance in even the smallest point. I wanted to illustrate this using the shortest of quotations from towards the end of Chapter 15, when Mr Collins is a guest at Mrs Philips's little party: "Mr Collins repeated his apologies in quitting the room, and was assured with unwearying civility that they were perfectly needless."

I want to narrow in on the phrase "unwearying civility". It seems to me that Austen inserts the adjective "unwearying" because she wants to draw our attention to how quickly Mrs Philips's civility could weary, even if it doesn't (mainly because she is so flattered by Collins's admiration and attentions that she forgives him his pomposity) - and suggests in the process how quickly any normal person's civility would quickly weary under such assault from Mr Collins. Isn't that brilliant?


Monday, 1 December 2008

Special powers ...?

If you had a super-power, what would it be?

I think mine would be to remember, word for word, everything that was ever said to me, all the films I've ever watched, everything I've ever read. (It certainly would have helped during Finals!). Either that or to fly. Or to make whoever I chose fall in love with me and save the pointless heartache. Although I think the latter would probably cause more problems than it would solve. As would being able to remember everything verbatim, I suppose - my head would end up stupidly cluttered.

Let's hear from you, folks - what would your power be, and what would be the amazing pros and cons?


Sunday, 30 November 2008

Twilight by Stephanie Meyer

This is another fairly quick read, which I chose because I may well go and see the film and I don't want to repeat what happened with The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (where I saw the film before reading the book). I was also hooked, in a giggly way, by a line on the back which described the book as "the thrilling tale of a vampire romance set in high school", which is pretty irresistible. But the actual book was so entrenched in teenage and romance cliches that it never managed to explore what for me was the most interesting part of the story (more on that later).

So, there's a suspiciously beautiful girl (tick), Isabella Swan (interesting name: tick), who even more suspiciously doesn't seem to realise how beautiful she is (tick). Her parents are separated (daughter of a broken home: tick), and she suddenly moves to live with her father in Washington state (emotional and physical upheaval: tick). All the boys at her school immediately fall in love with her and fight over her, but she's intrigued by this uncommonly handsome family, the Cullens, especially the boy Edward Cullen who seems to really hate her. Except of course he doesn't hate her - he's a vampire with super-human powers of strength and speed, who only appears to hate her because he's so overwhelmed by his attraction to her, and, more worryingly, to drinking her blood. Isabella works this all out pretty quickly, but doesn't seem hugely peturbed by the revelation that the supernatural is very much alive and kicking - and we never find out why this doesn't faze her at all, why she accepts happily enough that he's a vampire and so are the rest of his family. (The vampire equivalent of vegetarians, of course, meaning they have given up on human blood to live off animals in an attempt to save their own souls.)

Here the story could get interesting. Edward has never felt such a strong attraction to anyone before, and their early encounters show promising hints of both his physical coldness and his difficulty controlling his appetite. But he deals with this problem fairly easily, so for a large part of the story there isn't actually any real conflict. Only when they run into some less moralistic vampires, and Isabella becomes their prey, does the tension mount - but even then, I didn't find the action as gripping as I could, partly because it was all so very predictable, with one mildly eyebrow-raising twist. Also - and this is a big problem with the book for me - Isabella got on my nerves, a lot. She can't play sports, she can't even run without falling over, she isn't musical, she's not particularly clever. She's also not particularly nice to her father, mother or her friends, reserving all her spark for Edward. In fact her only distinguishing feature seems to be her beauty and her sense of humour, which - I suspect, like Meyer's - doesn't stretch beyond the odd sarky remark. Such, perhaps, is the American way.

Edward, on the other hand, is so gorgeous and clever and talented and able to run/play sports/ save Isabella from all her troubles/play the piano like a virtuoso that he too got annoying. His "perfectly muscled chest" seemed to crop up a bit too much, without any real exploration of the sexual attraction that Isabella clearly feels, except with romance-laden words like "longing". We don't see enough of his flaws, and in this context I just don't think being a vampire counts as enough of a flaw. Both characters spoke like characters from a bad nineteenth-century novel half the time, always professing how bloody much they love each other, Edward being mildly amused at her other suitors, said suitors being a bit pathetic and not showing any balls ... Essentially, I rather felt that, given a course in literacy and a stack of Mills and Boon, a monkey could have written this book. It is readable, fair enough, and cinematically-written, so it'll probably translate quite well onto the big screen, but I really can't see why this series has become such a bestseller, and rather regret spending my £6.99 on it. Shame.


Monday, 24 November 2008


One thing I thought I might do with this blog is write a review of every book I read (as is probably evident from the entry below). I'm just going to shove a list of books I've read recently on here without reviews - if anyone else has read them then get in touch and tell me what you thought - I love arguing about books!

Saturday by Ian McEwan
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo
Homer's Odyssey by Simon Armitage
'The Laying on of Hands,' 'The Clothes They Stood Up In' and 'Father! Father! Burning Bright' by Alan Bennett
Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller
'The Yellow Wallpaper' by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

There are more and the list above isn't chronological, but I can't really remember all of them. I'll add some more books as I remember them. Currently I'm reading Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi.

Also, has anyone else ever seen Stephen Sondheim's musical Into the Woods?


Sunday, 23 November 2008

The Black Jewels Trilogy by Anne Bishop



I read this 1200-page tome relatively quickly, on the recommendation of a friend. It's a fantasy series concentrating largely on the activity of magical humanoids, with various other races making appearances along the way. Characters move between the lands on threads of magic which interweave like roads, and you never see how the non-magic folk, the 'landens', actually live or do anything. Those with magic are called the Blood, and the most powerful possess magical Jewels, of varying colours depending on the strength (Black is the strongest). Anne Bishop has added a strong matriarchal flavour to this: each realm has a Queen, who is served by a circle of males and females, which means that ultimately females are more powerful than males. However, centuries of bitchy in-fighting and power-bloated females means that the Blood have been corrupted, and now the males who have been unfairly subjugated by these villains await the arrival of 'Witch', the 'dream made flesh'. She appears very near the beginning of the first book (which rather diminishes their apparent wait), and is a small, blonde, blue-eyed girl called Jaenelle, who turns out to have phenomenal powers and eventually purges the Blood of its evil taint (which means a mass slaughter, essentially).

One problem Bishop seems to have with this matriarchal premise is that she still portrays many of her female characters as healers and comforters, and almost all male characters as naturally violent, with filthy tempers. This means that most of the magical strength in the books comes from a trio of male characters, two of whom wear Black Jewels: Saeten, the High Lord of Hell; his son Daemon Sadi, the 'Sadist' and seducer of the series; and his other son Lucivar, an expert Eyrien (i.e. winged) warrior, who wears the second most powerful Jewel. I fell instantly in love with Daemon, the pleasure-slave turned Consort of Jaenelle, whose seductive power is everywhere emphasised. I especially liked the mix of feminine and masculine Bishop uses to create a character attractive to both men and women (there are odd prickly hints of an incestuous attractive between Lucivar and Daemon). Lucivar is pretty attractive too, although I couldn't help seeing him as a second-best to Daemon (the latter is characterised as a mirror of his father, whereas Lucivar often seems to have an ill-defined role), and indeed Bishop marries him off to a woman we've never met somewhere between the second and third books (I think), which is emotionally rather a blow for the reader - or at least this reader.

Since the book is dominated by these three, there isn't enough room for the other characters, of which there are A LOT. I found myself horribly confused between many of the minor characters, whose names were often very similar (there's a Lucivar, a Luthvian, a Ladvarian; a Titian and a Tersa, both old ladies; a Hekatah and a Hepsabah; a Karla, a Kartane, a Kaelas, and so on). There isn't a map included, either, so in between the various trips to the 'abyss' (the psychic location of magical power) and the 'Twisted Kingdom' (a physical imaging of madness), it's hard to imagine the physical existence of these places, and Bishop isn't giving much away. I found that there wasn't enough background information on the theory of Craft, the discipline of magic, or the interaction between the caste hierarchy of the realms and which level of Jewel you are allowed to wear. There are shops and shopping and occasionally money, but no real sense of where all these things come from - with the result that the trilogy ended up being rather limited and repetitive. Jaenelle's power is so much greater than that of her enemies, especially when bolstered by Saetan, Daemon and Lucivar, that you never once imagine she could possibly lose the battle against those lesser Queens who want to make her a puppet of their will, and the third book especially is a series of vague attempts at infiltrating this populous and absurdly powerful cluster of heroines and heroes, with predictably little success.

Stylistically, Bishop's prose is readable (apart from the eye-stumbles over all the near-identical names), but similarly limited: she endlessly describes Jaenelle's voice as 'midnight', which stops being neat after the eight-hundredth time. The characters always seem aghast to learn anything of how powerful she is - I wanted to scream at them, 'Haven't you learned to expect the unexpected??' - and always revert to a whispered 'Mother Night' to express surprise. The humour of the interacting characters becomes rather tedious because we're rarely allowed to see enough of the minor characters to warm to them.

I'm afraid the above has turned into a bit of a rant about this series' flaws, but that's mainly because it could have been so good, and ended up so disappointing. The first book is by far the best, with the most varied action and the least tedious repetition about the damages of rape and child abuse, which the other books obsess about (Jaenelle is raped at the end of the first book). One thing I did like is the unashamed inclusion of eroticism, and there's a nice little twist where we realise that Daemon, who has never been physically aroused by a woman until Jaenelle, must in fact be a virgin. If Bishop had been more restrained with the characters and worked on the plotting and the physical existence of her imaginative world, and let the reader see more of what is clearly a political as well as creative mind, then perhaps I wouldn't have been struggling by the end, and I'd be giving the trilogy more than 5.5/10. Read for the ideas rather than their actual crystallisation.


Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Today I went on a quick trip to London to see the Annie Leibovitz exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, which was marvellous. Lots of pictures of Susan Sontag, with the beauty that comes with intimacy. I was nearly seduced at the shop by Sontag's book about photography, but in the end bought a couple of postcards not from the exhibition. I wish I could have found a postcard of this Leibowitz picture, however, taken in 1994, of Johnny Depp and Kate Moss. I managed to find it on the internet - there are a couple of pictures of her in the nineties with boyfriends, often naked or topless, and this one is just beautiful. It manages to be somehow posed and natural - she's doing her model thing, with that coy look at the camera, but she looks pretty relaxed, as if they're mucking around on a Sunday morning when he's just come back from picking up the papers to find her waiting for him. Or something like that. I'll try and locate the other picture of Moss. She's a complete chameleon in front of a camera, although I don't much like her collaboration with Topshop or her new liking for interviews - she's revealed herself as essentially quite shallow, or at least is adopting that kind of persona to appeal to people who read Glamour and Now! rather than, say, Vogue. More on her later.

Love and respect.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008


As if to add to the below 'Dilemma', I now have an EMAIL from a member of, with the subject 'sorry'. I can't read this email without paying. I've no idea what it might say - I winked at her, so she might be jumping the gun and offering a polite rejection or, since she's Dutch, may be apologising that she doesn't speak English.

I don't want you all to think that this dating website is suddenly the NUMBER ONE BIG ISSUE in my life. But it is pretty damn important. Help!

And along the same lines ...

Today I was at a school in Cambridgeshire again, observing English lessons. At the end of a Year 8 class, we were standing waiting to leave, when a boy asked, 'Are you a boy or a girl?' I was wearing trousers, boots with a slight heel and a rollneck, and I have short hair and am not tremendously big-breasted, so I suppose it's not a totally implausible mistake to make. At any rate, I don't think he was asking it to be rude - as far as I could tell - but seemed genuinely curious. (Actually, it may be that race has something to do with it: he was of Oriental origin, and I spent a month in China last year being stared at by passers-by who couldn't tell whether I was male or female. I think it's along the same lines as Westerners' difficulty, every so often, of mistaking one Chinese person for another, and our inability to pick up on the distinguishing marks of faces that are built differently. I realise 'our' should be in inverted commas: let's not start creating artificial commuities where none exists.)

So, back to the curious boy. I told him I was a girl in a curiously neutral voice, and explained briefly that some girls have short hair. I can't say I was particularly insulted. I'd much rather be the guinea-pig for these kinds of enquiries and set the occasional child on the path to realising that not every female has to be pretty than be affronted and treat the question as rude, which I honestly don't think it is. Perhaps a boy might be insulted at being asked this, but surely that simply proves that he's latently, and however unconsciously, a misogynist?


A Dilemma:

I've been browsing through a dating website called, looking for women. It's really not easy to find women that like women unless you're willing to get into the whole 'scene' and go clubbing, although luckily I've found a group in Cambridge who are rather nice. Anyway, the free membership extends to creating a profile, looking at other people's and 'winking' at them to let them know you approve. To actually contact any of them, you have to pay, the cheapest offer being just under £60 for six months. I'm 21, and that's a lot of money. But, as I'm sure is their intention, I'm being slowly tempted into spending it by the odd wink that comes my way, a couple by some really seriously attractive women. Is it worth it? Is there any chance I'd actually meet someone I really liked? Would the money be better spent on other things?

If anyone has a point of view on this - or, even better, can offer anecdotal reasoning - then please do let me know!

Love and respect.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Kids and blindness

I've been visiting a few schools in the Cambridgeshire area recently to observe lessons. I want to be a teacher and actually being in the classroom is really good fun. However, I still can't believe how many of the kids laughed or made comments about my hair, often to the effect of 'She's a man' or similar. Often these kids were boys with long hair. I really wanted to ask them calmly, 'Haven't you ever seen a woman with short hair? You ought to get out more,' but I guess it's no different to how frequently adults tend to slate people's appearance (often for being so mainstream rather than 'out there', in fact). I was also quite taken aback with what was essentially a form of bigotry amongst these kids, but I suppose you learn how flimsy your prejudices are one step at a time. I certainly have been, so blaming the children would be a bit hypocritical.

Has anyone ever found any fantasy literature with significant homosexual content? I'm not the widest ever reader of decent (non-erotic) fantasy, and I assume it must exist somewhere, but I'm currently trying to write something along these lines, about a made-up society that criminalises homosexuality and executes for it - and how it flourishes in a military school for girls, where all sexual stereotypes are stripped away and the body becomes simply a tool for work and violence, unsexed, streamlined. Of course it's the nature of society to recuperate these challenges to sexual values, and indeed some of the warriors who emerge from the school quickly become mistresses of the males in power - but what about the ones who find ways for their feelings to become acceptable? What if Twelfth Night meets the Taleban? What if, under the blind eyes of the law, the line between female and male can blur?

I'm getting a bit carried away with blurby hooks. But still. I think there are still stories to be told - or perhaps retold - to make people sit up and think. And that's why I'm in the business.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

On a rainy Sunday morning

'All change, please.' If we're talking about what's British and what isn't, this phrase will be familiar to anyone who's travelled on the Tube. What a polite way of saying, 'Right, everybody off this train!' I read over the summer Kate Fox's book Watching the English, a book about English (rather than British) behavioural patterns, especially as related to the class system. Of course she included a section on the English obsession with manners, and it's true that rude people are still one of the biggest sources of everyday fury for many of us, far more than, say, parters who cheat or dictators who commit genocide. I work in a bookshop, which I love most of the time, but occasionally you get people who refuse to believe that the book they want is out of print, or won't accept that their order (placed yesterday) hasn't yet arrived. One man threw a complete fit after the till computer didn't recogise a 3 for 2 offer and the sale had to be put through again. He demanded vouchers and a large discount from our floor manager, who refused politely, upon which he asked for the details of our Head Office to make a formal complaint. It seemed like he was really going to do it, too. This story was told over and over again in the staff room for the rest of the day - no one could believe his nerve, especially since the girl who had served him was quite new and had made a simple mistake, which was explained to him. There is no excuse for rudeness. By all means get a little wearily exasperated - we get frustrated with ourselves sometimes if we slip up - but, to be quite honest, a bad customer is more likely to receive lacklustre customer service than someone who is polite, recognises that staff are only human and our search engines are imperfect, and who is philosophical if we conclude that we can't get hold of a book. We have a statistics area on our computer called 'Sales/Customer Performance', which suggests a little comically that we expect the customers to perform as well as the sales team. This isn't so far from the truth, though, and acting like a human interacting with another human rather than a superior talking to an inferior will reap its own rewards.

Sorry about that little rant - which sounds a little pompous. And to be fair, I occasionally find myself playing intellectual oneupmanship with customers - like a girl, clearly a Cambridge fresher, who bought a copy of Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory, which I read as revision for my first-year exams at Oxford. We're supposed to comment on customers' purchases if we can, so I said, 'Oh, I've read this, it's great,' in what I hoped was an affectionate way (towards the book, not the customer). The girl looked wary and her mother looked close to disgusted. Perhaps it was more the idea of an English Oxbridge graduate working in a chain bookshop, but I suppose I could have seemed like I was showing off. Very bad form.

I've forgotten what the original point of this post was. I think I was going to talk about whether or not sexually-active gay men should be allowed to donate blood in the UK, but I realised I hadn't explained the name of my blog at all. I still haven't, really, because this blog isn't going to be any kind of commentary on what makes us British. I think Jon Gaunt's got that covered (albeit in the form of racist, chauvinist nonsense). I like the phrase, and I suppose 'All Change Please' is a good metaphor for what I'd like to see happen to the way we think. We need to get off the train of 'men vs. women', because it has reached the end of the line. A new train will be leaving in a few minutes in the opposite direction, and you are strongly advised to board this train.

Love and respect.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

The un-climax of beginning

So, here we go. Despite writing some form of original material every day I have never kept a blog, which seems a bit strange. Perhaps because I've lived in gossip-dominated communities my whole life, and now I'm half in, half out I've realised that I really can't bear gossip, although I suppose it has its function in the creation of community - it's just a shame it has to isolate someone by making them the object, not the participant, of the conversation. Anyway, perhaps I've always felt too uncertain of myself to keep a blog. This doesn't mean I feel any less sure about things now; just I've realised that most people are as inconsistent and whirly in their views as I am.

I suppose a useful way to begin would be to set out some basic things about myself, but I'd rather let it evolve more organically, and not have to summarise 'me' before I begin. I've just returned to this post after watching 'We Are Much Amused' on ITV, the series of comedians performing to celebrate Prince Charles's 60th. Mostly very funny, but I think Stephen K. Amos ought to stop talking about being black. His other material is extremely good - quips he's made on Mock the Week, for instance - and I can't help but feel we'd all forget about his skin colour if he talked about a variety of things, rather than a series of variations on one subject. If he didn't restrict his subject matter so much we might just start to think of him as a very good comedian, rather than wondering what insights he'll have about racism this time.

I have the same thoughts about women's rights and gay rights. It's noticeable that, say, kd lang is often referred to as 'lesbian singer kd lang', whereas male gay celebrities are not marked out in this way. Perhaps this is because lang has spoken quite openly about being gay, and indeed Sandy Toksvig's sexuality is not often mentioned, or Clare Balding's, but frankly I don't think it should necessarily be mentioned at all. You wouldn't refer to Leona Lewis as 'black singer Leona Lewis', would you? It's the same principle - a part of your identity, more or less unchangeable (Michael Jackson being the exception to this rule as he is to many), and as unremarkable as the colour of your hair. That homosexuality is still 'remarked' upon so frequently and with such intrigue - who could forget the lyrics of that infuriating Katie Perry song, 'I kissed a girl ... It felt so wrong, it felt so right'? - suggests that it hasn't yet become any kind of norm.

Saying that, the relatively chilled-out attitude of gossip magazines (at least in this country) towards Lindsay Lohan and Sam Ronson, who is these days usually referred to as her 'girlfriend' or 'partner' without any flagging-up of their sexuality, is definitely encouraging. Perhaps this great excitement over a fairly public gay relationship will mean that the next time a similar revelation occurs, we'll be a bit less excited, and eventually we won't give a damn whether someone's gay, straight or anywhere in between, or none of the above. Perhaps eventually we'll dispense with the very ideas of 'gay' and 'straight' and 'bi'. I can't help smiling when men say things like, 'I'd go gay for Johnny Depp' (a popular choice for this kind of confession, by the way). It's as if acknowledging that there is a part of your personality which is attracted to the same sex, but doing so whilst highlighting that you're not gay for the moment (and, if you carry on using a celebrity for this kind of statement, you're not likely to 'be' gay in the future) is like a safety valve on sexual drives. 'I'd go gay for Johnny Depp' means that a little part of you, at least, already is gay, but you'd have to be tempted by something seriously covetable before you'd 'make the switch', as it were. Why is it seen as such a big risk? I know guys who are quite happy to admit they fancy other men every so often - and it doesn't make them any less macho, not that they want to conform to such a tightly-regulated social structure as machismo apparently is. (I don't speak from experience but from conversations I've had with males about their relationship with machismo.)

This has ended up being a longer post than I intended. In a way the Stephen K Amos thing turned out to be a rather good starting-point for something I'd quite like to see change in my lifetime, the idea that there should be any kind of norms for men or women, gay or straight people, or any race at all. Most people, even those who aren't racist or homophobic (sometimes especially them) seem to believe that men and women ought to be fundamentally different, and do behave differently and therefore ought to. I'm not disputing that men and women often behave differently and that generalisations can be drawn. But for every rule there are thousands of unremarked exceptions, and we need to realise that statistics are meaningless. Just because something is more common does not mean the less common people can be ignored. And the fact that a norm is does not mean it ought to be. Look at racism. Look at homophobia. Look at sexual inequality. The 20th century has seen spectacular revolutions in patterns of thought in these three areas. I believe the 21st century can push further, into an era where we are not 'men and women', we are simply 'people'.